WASHINGTON — Former NFL star Colin Kaepernick did not look like himself in a fundraising email that was sent by the National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday. The message included a picture of Kaepernick that appeared noticeably altered to make his skin darker, an attack ad tactic that has been used before and is considered by many as racist.
One Democratic operative who saw the NRCC’s Kaepernick ad described it as “disgusting.”
“House Republicans are running on racism, plain and simple. It’s disgusting, it’s offensive and it should be fireable, but there’s no accountability in the Republican Party,” the operative said.
The NRCC is one of the main Hill committees run by the two major political parties. It is dedicated to electing Republicans to the House of Representatives. The message the group sent to supporters advertised a “Betsy Ross mug” and referenced Kaepernick’s opposition to the slavery-era flag.
“WHO DO YOU STAND WITH? DONALD TRUMP AND THE BETSY ROSS FLAG OR ANTI-AMERICAN FLAG COLIN KAEPERNICK?” the message asked.
Pictures of President Trump and Kaepernick appear side-by-side in the message. The photo of Kaepernick appears to have been altered to make his skin several shades darker than it is in original copies of the image. In an email to Yahoo News, NRCC communications director Chris Pack insisted, “The photo was not darkened.”
Spokespeople for Kaepernick did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.
The NRCC email advertised a mug emblazoned with a 1770s era flag that supporters would receive in exchange for a $25 donation. It was a clear reference to the announcement by Nike that it wouldn’t sell a shoe model featuring the 18th century flag, which Kaepernick said he found offensive because it was used during slavery. Kaepernick, who has an endorsement deal with Nike, has become one of the more prominent African-American activists focused on racial justice. He last played in the NFL in 2016 and famously began a protest against racial oppression and police shootings by kneeling during the national anthem at games. His protests spread, and Kaepernick became a lightning rod, drawing criticism from President Trump.
Kaepernick became a free agent in 2017 and has remained unsigned. He filed a grievance against the NFL accusing it of keeping him from the league due to his activism, and the two sides reached a confidential settlement earlier this year.
Political ad makers have previously been accused of darkening African-Americans’ skin in photographs to appeal to racist sentiment. In 2015, a study of negative ads that aired against Barack Obama in the 2008 election showed that the campaign of Republican candidate John McCain consistently darkened Obama’s skin in commercials. That study also showed McCain’s skin was lightened in some ads and found those images appealed to “stereotypes” and negatively affected some voters’ impressions of Obama. During that same race, the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton was also accused of darkening Obama’s skin in ads, and liberal critics described it as “using racism” and “race-baiting.” There is a wide body of evidence indicating racial prejudice is stronger against African-Americans with darker skin, and multiple other studies have echoed the finding that some voters respond negatively to candidates with darker skin.
The NRCC’s Kaepernick ad comes as the campaign committee has faced criticism for its tactics from even within the Republican Party. In June, The Hill reported GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney told the NRCC’s chairman, Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., that “Republicans raised questions about the NRCC’s strategy during a closed-door meeting.” Their concerns included the NRCC’s usage of Trump-style mocking nicknames in political attacks on Democrats. On June 4, former Republican congressman Tom Rooney tweeted a simple message at Emmer in response to the juvenile jabs.
“This isn’t you,” Rooney wrote.
A spokesperson for Emmer declined to comment and referred the matter to the NRCC. Thus far, Emmer and other Republican leaders have defended the NRCC’s approach. GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy issued a statement to The Hill in June that praised Emmer and his team for “doing what it takes to win.”
“They’re on offense and not letting Democrats get away with promising their voters action but coming to Washington and conforming to the new Democrat Socialist agenda,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the NRCC’s Kaepernick ad.
Earlier this month, Emmer similarly defended the committee’s tactics to the Minnesota Star Tribune and noted his position is “literally measured by wins and losses.”
“Our job is to define the other side of the aisle,” Emmer said. “Our guys are being as aggressive as they can to get these stories placed.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story and headline said the photo “was” noticeably altered. After it appeared, the NRCC provided a statement to Yahoo News denying that the photo was darkened, and the story was updated to reflect that.
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